Joe Coulombe, the San Diego native who founded of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain that bear’s his name and grew from a single outlet in Pasadena to more than 500 stores in 40 states, has died following years of declining health. He was 89.
Coulombe’s son, Joe Jr., told reporters his father died late Friday at his home in Pasadena where he had been under hospice care.
“We’re going to miss him a lot,” his son told the Pasadena Star-News. “I think people are going to remember the wonderful Trader Joe’s concept he put in place, and especially his treatment of his employees. He really cared about them.”
Those memories were already trending on social media early Saturday morning, with special note being made of Trader Joe’s wages and unique, healthy foods.
“Trader Joe’s is a model that every business should emulate,” Twitter user NYGiantsfan74 posted. “The products are great, the prices are great and every … employee is happy. I love Trader Joe’s. Please don’t ever change and become greedy.”
Another user simply expressed thanks “for Pirate’s Booty and your free sample station.”
Coulombe, a San Diego native who was raised in Del Mar and earned a master’s in business administration from Stanford University, began his retail career in 1958. His bosses at Rexall Drugs hired him to open a chain of 7-Eleven style convenience stores, which he later bought when the company abandoned the idea.
But as 7-Eleven began encroaching on his territory, Coulombe shifted to what would become the Trader Joe model: healthy foods that shoppers could not find in other markets, sold at reasonable prices in stores with South Seas nautical decor and employees dressed in Hawaiian-style shirts.
The first Trader Joe’s opened in 1967 on Arroyo Boulevard in Pasadena where it still stands Saturday, having spawned scores of similar outlets nationwide.
Along the way, Trader Joes gained a loyal following for everything from its “Two Buck Chuck” Charles Shaw wine and skincare products to its periodic “Fearless Flyer” newsletter featuring the latest products and occasional behind-the-scenes podcast.
“Scientific American had a story that of all people qualified to go to college, 60% were going,” Coulombe told the Los Angeles Times for a 2014 profile. “I felt this newly educated — not smarter but better educated — class of people would want something different, and that was the genesis of Trader Joe’s.”
In later years, Coulombe became a noted philanthropist providing support for such organizations at the Los Angeles Opera and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, sat on several corporate boards and thrived as an amateur painter and sometime food and wine commentator.
Coulombe, who retired in 1988, is survived by his wife of 67 years, Alice, three children and six grandchildren.
“He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked,” Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane said Saturday. “He was not only our founder, he was our first spokesperson. He starred in captivating radio ads for years, always signing off with his unique, ‘thanks for listening.’ Joe developed a cadre of leaders that carried on his vision and helped shape Trader Joe’s in the early years.”
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